By JOSE MARTINEZ
Photos Courtesy of AARON ECKHART/Geffen
Fans of safe and happy-go-lucky theater better run and hide for the month of August because renowned and controversial playwright Neil LaBute doesn’t just have one production in town—he has two!
A man whose plays and films have shocked many, his film work includes In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, Nurse Betty and The Shape of Things to Come, is taking over theater in Los Angeles with his brand of unrelenting drama, often filled with self-absorbed characters and very poignant and disturbingly social themes.
While LaBute has recently directed episodes of AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” as well as the good natured ensemble comedy Death at a Funeral possibly giving way to a kinder and gentler LaBute, it’s his taut dramas that have caused critics and some audiences to label him a misanthrope and misogynist since his debut film In the Company of Men back in 1997.
“I don’t think it would hurt to reassess things every five years or so,” LaBute says about being labeled a woman-hater. “That would be nice of people to check in on that sort of thing. I know how it happens but it’s a bummer when you don’t agree with it.”
Continuing with his beauty trilogy In Reasons to Be Pretty at the Geffen Playhouse, LaBute takes on society’s ongoing fixation with beauty and in particular one man’s inability to say the right thing—ever. When Greg makes an innocuous, off-handed remark about his girlfriend Steph, it triggers a battle by which their relationship will forever be defined. Tony nominated for Best Play, Reasons to Be Pretty continues a series that includes The Shape of Things, Fat Pig (a previous Geffen Playhouse hit) and Reasons to Be Happy. The show stars Nick Gehlfuss, Shawn Hatosy, Amber Tamblyn and Alicia Witt and marks the fourth collaboration between LaBute and Geffen Playhouse.
“It’s nice to have a home somewhere,” LaBute says of the Geffen. “Because you can spread yourself so far around and with so many people, it’s always great to go back to a place or group of people who you know and work with. It’s great when the Geffen is interested in me doing something again. I love the space but I also love the people who run the place.”
Across town on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, LaBute’s personal In a Dark Dark House starring Aaron McPherson, Shaun Sipos and Annie Chernecky focuses on the many effects of sexual abuse and the way society might be expected to react to abused victims.
“In a Dark Dark House was just a story that came to me,” LaBute recalls, “not thinking about my own past so much as filtering what I knew about the lives that these characters have and then wanting to tell a story about siblings.” No matter what you think of LaBute’s work, be prepared to have a strong opinion either way, and that’s just how the playwright likes it. “You’re always trying to connect and tell stories that are different than what everyone else has,’ LaBute explains. “I’m always looking to connect with an audience, and yet, sometimes it’s negative but through that negativity, sometimes you’ve left them with something to think about. I think that can be useful. We’re taught at some age to always want positive reaction but it makes sense when you’re out there asking questions, which is a big part of what playwrights are supposed to do, not always having answers but at least asking questions. I think, depending on the questions, it’s very important to be taking the temperature of people. If people think you have nothing to say or it’s of little interest that would probably be the worst.”
The inspired work of Neil LaBute is like a bad accident where you can’t help but look on riveted, even if the visual is disturbing and off-putting. He doesn’t paint pretty pictures or tells sweet stories, his theater is dark and unpleasant world that manages to provoke and entertain. And while the big musicals and lavish productions may get the hype, LaBute’s unflattering and unflinching stories are the kind I want in a darkened theater.
Photo 1: Neil LaBute (Photo: Aaron Eckhart), Photo 2: Amber Tamblyn set to star in Neil’s Reasons To Be Pretty at the Geffen Playhouse, Photo 3: Shawn Hatosy stars in Reasons To Be Pretty, Photo 4: Shaun Sipos and Aaron McPherson in In A Dark Dark House at the Matrix Theatre (Photo: Bobby Quillard)